In all honesty, I have struggled to write this short sermon.
And it hasn’t been because of typical reasons, for example, performance anxiety, or the fact that this is the first sermon I have written in almost 10 years, or that I took homiletics at a conservative Baptist seminary, and those Baptists do sermons differently than Episcopalians do.
No, I’ve struggled because we’re living in a period of collective anxiety. I’ve been on high alert for the past few weeks, as I’m sure many of you have been. I wondered how I could even concentrate to write a homily that could speak to everyone listening, with the world seeming to come apart around me. That’s when I realized that I was needlessly limiting myself and caving into worry. I don’t need to worry about anyone else, I just need to preach to myself, at the very least, and let the Spirit handle the rest.
Reading the Gospel passage for today, I found myself intrigued by whom Jesus was conversing with. Throughout the Gospel of John, the narrator seems to be pretty good at naming the Pharisees if Jesus was talking to them. But in this passage, we read that “Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him”, not Pharisees. So it is curious that they (supposedly, people who believe in Jesus) go back and forth with Jesus, arguing about the nature of slavery and how that relates to their own identity, because we know Pharisees liked to debate. Jesus then says that these people are looking for an opportunity to kill him. How could these people also be people who believe in Jesus?
It is possible that some enemies of Jesus were hidden in the crowd of Jews who had believed; it is also possible that the narrator failed to mention the identity of those speaking with Jesus for whatever reason; it is also possible that the narrator did mention it, but it got edited out. However, I imagine another possibility. What if, in that crowd, there were those who, yes, believed in Jesus, but, those same people who claimed to believe were also the people who had been seeking out an opportunity to end his life? What if they thought that believing in Jesus didn’t contradict with killing him? This sounds a bit wacky, but stick with me for a minute. You can believe someone exists, that they are a really great person in their own right, but you can also still hold to the conviction, that despite all of that, this person needs to be stopped, because they are breaking the law; they don’t fit with your ideology and way of living, your religion. Maybe you are more afraid of losing those things than of following Jesus.
So, okay, here these Jews are, whoever they are, arguing with Jesus. They seem a little confused about what Jesus is saying. Jesus says, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Then, Jews pick an argument over whether or not they are slaves, completely ignoring the question of what the Truth is, because they disagree with the premise of the question: “We aren’t slaves!”. The Jews continue to argue with Jesus about their identity when Jesus seems to refer to spiritual enslavement; that is, “the truth will set you free”, (in other words, not a note from your master) but the Jews debating him keep referring back to their lineage to prove their physical freedom, saying, “we are literal offspring of Abraham and have never been slaves” That is curious in of itself, because history says that offspring of Abraham haven’t always been free. Anyhow, Jesus points to their motives and actions as their enslavement: they aren’t free; they are seeking to kill him. They aren’t acting like children of God, even though some might believe in Jesus. So it would seem that our actions delineate the truth: are we free, or not?
Oscar Romero, whose feast day was observed a little over a week ago, had this say about freedom and slavery:
“The word ‘liberation’ bothers many people, but it is the reality of Christ’s redemption. Liberation does not mean only redemption after death, so that people should just conform to the system while they are alive. No, liberation is redemption that is already beginning on this earth. Liberation means that the exploitation of one human being by another no longer exists in the world. Liberation means redemption that seeks to free people from every form of slavery. Slavery is illiteracy; slavery is hunger, not having money to buy food; slavery is being homeless, not having a place to live. Slavery is misery; they go together. When the Church preaches that Christ came to redeem us and that because of that redemption no form of slavery should exist on earth, the church is not preaching subversion or politics or communism. The Church is preaching the true redemption of Christ. Christ does not want slaves; he wants all people to be redeemed; he wants us all, rich and poor, to love one another as sisters and brothers. He wants liberation to reach everywhere so that no slavery exists in the world, none at all. No person should be the slave of another, nor a slave of misery, nor a slave of anything that supposes sin in the world.”
I would add, maybe slavery feels like an over-reliance on wealth to shield oneself from perceived danger, or maybe an addiction to certain emotions, or, even, an over-reliance on a sense of control to retain comfort, which many of us are realizing right about now. We know there is nothing wrong with being anxious or having fear, because they tell us something about ourselves and the world around us. But I would invite you along with me to consider this: that in these times of uncertainty, feeling out of control, and anxious, are we acting like children of God, or not? Do we focus on liberation for ourselves as well as others, believing in Jesus? Or do we participate in our own bondage?
Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Homily by Sabrina Reyes-Peters
For Lenten Evening Prayer, April 1, 20201